Brooks and Krugman

September 19, 2014

Oh, gawd…  Bobo has a question in “Startling Adult Friendships:”  How would you spend $500 million? He’s got a few ideas.  In the comments “Claus Gehner” from Seattle and Munich had this to say:  “Mr. Brooks’ editorials of late have been a bit – how shall I put it – weird. This one ascends to new heights of weirdness.”  Bobo’s obviously going through some prolonged midlife crisis.  I just wish he’d keep it to himself.  Prof. Krugman, in “Errors and Emissions,” says fighting climate change could be cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines if we wouldn’t give in to the despair.  Here, dear sweet Baby Jesus help us, is Bobo:

Somebody recently asked me what I would do if I had $500 million to give away. My first thought was that I’d become a moderate version of the Koch brothers. I’d pay for independent candidates to run against Democratic or Republican members of Congress who veered too far into their party’s fever swamps.

But then I realized that if I really had that money, I’d want to affect a smaller number of people in a more personal and profound way. The big, established charities are already fighting disease and poverty as best they can, so in search of new directions I thought, oddly, of friendship.

Ancient writers from Aristotle to Cicero to Montaigne described friendship as the pre-eminent human institution. You can go without marriage, or justice, or honor, but friendship is indispensable to life. Each friendship, they continued, has positive social effects. Lovers face each other, but friends stand side-by-side, facing the world — often working on its behalf. Aristotle suggested that friendship is the cornerstone of society. Montaigne thought that it spreads universal warmth.

These writers probably romanticized friendship. One senses that they didn’t know how to have real conversations with the women in their lives, so they poured their whole emotional lives into male friendships. But I do think they were right in pointing out that friendship is a personal relationship that has radiating social and political benefits.

In the first place, friendship helps people make better judgments. So much of deep friendship is thinking through problems together: what job to take; whom to marry. Friendship allows you to see your own life but with a second sympathetic self.

Second, friends usually bring out better versions of each other. People feel unguarded and fluid with their close friends. If you’re hanging around with a friend, smarter and funnier thoughts tend to come burbling out.

Finally, people behave better if they know their friends are observing. Friendship is based, in part, on common tastes and interests, but it is also based on mutual admiration and reciprocity. People tend to want to live up to their friends’ high regard. People don’t have close friendships in any hope of selfish gain, but simply for the pleasure itself of feeling known and respected.

It’s also true that friendship is not in great shape in America today. In 1985, people tended to have about three really close friends, according to the General Social Survey. By 2004, according to research done at Duke University and the University of Arizona, they were reporting they had only two close confidants. The number of people who say they have no close confidants at all has tripled over that time.

People seem to have a harder time building friendships across class lines. As society becomes more unequal and segmented, invitations come to people on the basis of their job status. Middle-aged people have particular problems nurturing friendships and building new ones. They are so busy with work and kids that friendship gets squeezed out.

So, in the fantasy world in which I have $500 million, I’d try to set up places that would cultivate friendships. I know a lot of people who have been involved in fellowship programs. They made friends that ended up utterly transforming their lives. I’d try to take those sorts of networking programs and make them less career oriented and more profound.

To do that, you have to get people out of their normal hunting grounds where their guard is up. You also probably want to give them challenging activities to do together. Nothing inspires friendship like selflessness and cooperation in moments of difficulty. You also want to give them moments when they can share confidences, about big ideas and small worries.

So I envision a string of adult camps or retreat centers (my oldest friendships were formed at summer camp, so I think in those terms). Groups of 20 or 30 would be brought together from all social and demographic groups, and secluded for two weeks. They’d prepare and clean up all their meals together, and eating the meals would go on for a while. In the morning, they would read about and discuss big topics. In the afternoons, they’d play sports, take hikes and build something complicated together. At night, there’d be a bar and music.

You couldn’t build a close friendship in that time, but you could plant the seeds for one. As with good fellowship programs, alumni networks would grow spontaneously over time.

People these days are flocking to conferences, ideas festivals and cruises that are really about building friendships, even if they don’t admit it explicitly. The goal of these intensity retreats would be to spark bonds between disparate individuals who, in the outside world, would be completely unlikely to know each other. The benefits of that social bridging, while unplannable, would ripple out in ways long and far-reaching.

It’s sad to think that Bobo can’t think of another way to form friendships other than what sounds very much like a reeducation camp for people like him…  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

This just in: Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. But will anyone believe the good news?

I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.

But you know that such assessments will be met with claims that it’s impossible to break the link between economic growth and ever-rising emissions of greenhouse gases, a position I think of as “climate despair.” The most dangerous proponents of climate despair are on the anti-environmentalist right. But they receive aid and comfort from other groups, including some on the left, who have their own reasons for getting it wrong.

Where is the new optimism about climate change and growth coming from? It has long been clear that a well-thought-out strategy of emissions control, in particular one that puts a price on carbon via either an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade scheme, would cost much less than the usual suspects want you to think. But the economics of climate protection look even better now than they did a few years ago.

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the I.M.F. paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And thanks to these co-benefits, the paper argues, one argument often made against carbon pricing — that it’s not worth doing unless we can get a global agreement — is wrong. Even without an international agreement, there are ample reasons to take action against the climate threat.

But back to the main point: It’s easier to slash emissions than seemed possible even a few years ago, and reduced emissions would produce large benefits in the short-to-medium run. So saving the planet would be cheap and maybe even come free.

Enter the prophets of climate despair, who wave away all this analysis and declare that the only way to limit carbon emissions is to bring an end to economic growth.

You mostly hear this from people on the right, who normally say that free-market economies are endlessly flexible and creative. But when you propose putting a price on carbon, suddenly they insist that industry will be completely incapable of adapting to changed incentives. Why, it’s almost as if they’re looking for excuses to avoid confronting climate change, and, in particular, to avoid anything that hurts fossil-fuel interests, no matter how beneficial to everyone else.

But climate despair produces some odd bedfellows: Koch-fueled insistence that emission limits would kill economic growth is echoed by some who see this as an argument not against climate action, but against growth. You can find this attitude in the mostly European “degrowth” movement, or in American groups like the Post Carbon Institute; I’ve encountered claims that saving the planet requires an end to growth at left-leaning meetings on “rethinking economics.” To be fair, anti-growth environmentalism is a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.

And you sometimes see hard scientists making arguments along the same lines, largely (I think) because they don’t understand what economic growth means. They think of it as a crude, physical thing, a matter simply of producing more stuff, and don’t take into account the many choices — about what to consume, about which technologies to use — that go into producing a dollar’s worth of G.D.P.

So here’s what you need to know: Climate despair is all wrong. The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.

Blow, Kristof and Collins

September 18, 2014

In “On Spanking and Abuse” Mr. Blow says drawing blood isn’t an expression of love. It’s an expression of anger and exasperation that morphs into abuse.  Mr. Kristof, in “From D.C. to Syria, a Mess,” says so far the Obama administration is bungling its mission for fighting the Islamic State in Syria.  Ms. Collins says “Sex is the Least of It,” and tells us that Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina has gone from the Love Guv to the Facebook Congressman.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

According to reports about the Adrian Peterson felony abuse indictment, Peterson’s 4-year-old son pushed another of Peterson’s sons off a video game. Peterson then retrieved a tree branch — called a “switch” — stripped off its leaves, shoved leaves into the boy’s mouth and beat him with his pants down until he bled.

According to a CBS affiliate in Houston, Peterson texted the boy’s mother that she would be “mad at me about his legs. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”

He also reportedly texted that he “felt bad after the fact when I notice the switch was wrapping around hitting I (sic) thigh” and “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed! I start putting them in timeout. N save the whooping for needed memories!”

But the boy reportedly said, “Daddy Peterson hit me on my face,” that his father “likes belts and switches,” that “there are a lot of belts in Daddy’s closet,” and that he “has a whooping room.”

Spanking is not against the law in America — although some argue that it should be, as it is in Sweden and some other countries — but, as with most things in life, there are degrees beyond which even something that is generally acceptable, or at least legal, crosses a threshold and becomes not so.

This seems, on its face, from what we now know, a case in which the limits have most likely been exceeded.

Peterson released a statement that read, in part:

“I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen. I know that many people disagree with the way I disciplined my child. I also understand after meeting with a psychologist that there are other alternative ways of disciplining a child that may be more appropriate.”

It is good that Peterson met with a psychologist and learned alternative disciplinary methods, but that doesn’t heal the child’s wounds, and the fact that Peterson may have been abused in this way does not make it acceptable to pass on the abuse to his own children.

He continued, setting up an even more dangerous proposition:

“I have learned a lot and have had to re-evaluate how I discipline my son going forward. But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man. I love my son and I will continue to become a better parent and learn from any mistakes I ever make.”

When we promulgate the notion that our success is directly measurable to the violence visited on our bodies as children, we reinforce a societal supposition that pain is an instrument of love, and establish a false binary between the streets and the strap.

I take Peterson at his word that he loves his son, but the drawing of blood isn’t an expression of love. Love doesn’t look like that. That looks like an expression of anger and exasperation that morphs into abuse.

I understand the reasoning that undergirds much of this thinking about spanking: Better to feel the pain of being punished by someone in the home who loves you than by someone outside the home who doesn’t.

But that logic simply doesn’t hold up.

As the nonpartisan research group Child Trends pointed out in a report last year:

“Use of corporal punishment is linked to negative outcomes for children (e.g., delinquency, antisocial behavior, psychological problems, and alcohol and drug abuse), and may be indicative of ineffective parenting. Research also finds that the number of problem behaviors observed in adolescence is related to the amount of spanking a child receives. The greater the age of the child, the stronger the relationship.

“Positive child outcomes are more likely when parents refrain from using spanking and other physical punishment, and instead discipline their children through communication that is firm, reasoned and nurturing. Studies find this type of discipline can foster positive psychological outcomes, such as high self-esteem and cooperation with others, as well as improved achievement in school.”

The group also pointed out just how pervasive the practice is:

“In 2012, according to a nationally representative survey, 77 percent of men, and 65 percent of women 18 to 65 years old agreed that a child sometimes needs a ‘good hard spanking.’ ”

The group continued:

“One of the most frequently used strategies to discipline a child, especially a younger child, is spanking. About 94 percent of parents of children ages 3 to 4 in the United States report having spanked their children in the previous year.”

Spanking is an age-old disciplinary technique, so turning the tide against it may be difficult. Some people even argue that it’s a necessary tool in a parent’s arsenal of options.

I think we need to reconsider that.

Peterson also texted the boy’s mother: “Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.” Actually, Peterson did go overboard, and now the legal system will decide if and how he will be punished for it.

Words fail me.  Here’s Mr. Kristof:

President Obama’s rollout of a military campaign in Syria against the Islamic State gets messier by the day.

Obama’s initial framing of the campaign, as a limited effort in partnership with allies, to degrade the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, made sense, and it was encouraging that Obama dampened expectations and clearly understood how much could go wrong.

Then things went downhill. A “senior administration official,” in a briefing posted on the White House website, explained why Saudi Arabia would be a good partner in battling ISIS: “Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria.”

Oh?

Actually, Saudi Arabia and Syria have no border at all. Always be skeptical when the White House goes to war with a country that it misplaces on a map.

Soon the administration, after initially avoiding the word “war,” dropped the euphemisms. It announced from multiple podiums that what we’re engaging in actually is a war after all.

The latest puzzle relates to ground troops. Obama seemed to rule them out last week, saying that American troops “will not have a combat mission.” Then on Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that, if necessary, he might recommend “the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

Uh-oh.

Mr. President, you make it so hard for those of us who are basically sympathetic to your foreign policy. All this feels chaotic, poorly informed and uncoordinated — indeed, like a potential “slippery slope,” as a New York Times editorial warned.

Of course, it’s easy for us in the grandstands to criticize those walking the tightrope. I agree with Obama’s essential plan of authorizing airstrikes in Syria, if done cautiously and in conjunction with air forces of Sunni allies. But we can’t want to defeat ISIS more than the countries in its path, and right now we do.

American involvement must be predicated on an inclusive Iraqi government so that Sunni tribes confront ISIS. It must entail cooperation from Turkey to disrupt ISIS financing. It should incorporate a social media arm to counter ISIS propaganda, cyberwarfare to spy on ISIS and disrupt it, and additional intelligence gathering to monitor foreign fighters who may return home. And Obama is right that Congress should finance and arm some Free Syrian Army commanders, as a counterweight to ISIS. Some fighters have joined ISIS simply because it offers better pay.

We should finance Syrian rebels in part because our past policy — staying aloof — failed and made the problem worse. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have died; Jordan and Lebanon have been destabilized; extremism has grown; and Iraq has now effectively been dismembered and atrocities committed against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities.

The trouble is that alarm and revulsion at ISIS beheadings is creating a rush to intervene, so that some want us to leap from the sidelines right into the fray — even with ground troops. That would backfire by aggravating nationalists.

While I cautiously favor airstrikes, we need to be up front about risks:

First, airstrikes almost inevitably will mean accidental civilian casualties. ISIS would release videos of injured children to argue that America is at war with Islam. That may bolster extremist groups from Africa to Asia.

Second, more fighting in Syria could increase the refugee flow to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. It would be tragic if we inadvertently degraded not ISIS but Jordan.

Third, it seems entirely possible that ISIS filmed and released the beheading videos precisely with the intention of luring America into a war. Its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa would be difficult to bomb without causing civilian casualties, and ISIS may have figured that it could parlay American attacks into new recruits, prestige and influence.

We also have enormous challenges at home and abroad that we may be able to do more about than Syria. A few months ago, we were on alert over a Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, kidnapping several hundred schoolgirls and threatening to sell them into slavery. Those girls are still missing, and Boko Haram has gained even more ground in northern Nigeria. Let’s not become so obsessed with ISIS that we become distracted from other threats.

I see military force as just one more tool. Sometimes it saves lives (Kosovo, Iraqi no-fly zones), and sometimes it costs lives (Iraq, Vietnam). Syria could be the right occasion to use it, but only if we act as if we’re facing a yellow traffic light, not a green one.

For now, we seem to be setting out on an uncertain mission with unclear objectives on an unknown timetable using ambiguous methods with unreliable allies. Some of that is inevitable, for foreign policy is usually conducted in a fog, but I’d be more reassured if the White House could at least locate its enemy on the map.

It would appear that the MOTU have decided it’s time for another shootin’ war.  JUST what we need…  Here’s Ms. Collins:

Let us all contemplate the fact that Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina is running for re-election unopposed.

Sanford was, of course, the governor who snuck off to Argentina for an assignation while his befuddled aides claimed he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Now he’s the Facebook Congressman, who announced his breakup with his Argentine-squeeze-turned-fiancée in a 2,346-word posting that was mainly a whine about his ex-wife, the divorce settlement and visitation rules. “I think I owe you my thinking on this personal, but now public matter,” he told the world. Which most definitely had not asked for the information.

This is precisely the sort of thing his constituents should have been dreading when they gave the 54-year-old Republican another chance in a special House election last year. Sanford’s problem is less his libido than his remarkable, garrulous self-absorption. The man can’t stop sharing. Returning from his Argentina foray, he gave an interview to The Associated Press, in which he philosophized about the “sex line” that set his mistress, María Belén Chapur, apart from other women for whom he’d lusted.

And he held an endless press conference, perhaps the only moment in American political history in which a politician talked about his illicit sex life so much that everybody got bored with the subject. (“I’ll tell you more detail than you’ll ever want. …”) This was the same appearance in which he made the memorable announcement: “I spent the last five days crying in Argentina.”

And thus was born a legend.

Sanford got a clean start by running for Congress in a campaign that was long on the power of divine forgiveness and short on appearances by Chapur. Once elected, he kept a low profile. Then came the Facebook posting, yet another reminder of the importance of keeping elected officials away from social media.

Sanford ranted about a recent family court filing in which his ex-wife, Jenny, asked that he be required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and complete an anger management program. The congressman defended himself by sounding both angry and crazy. “I cannot do this anymore,” he wrote, launching into a litany of complaints about Jenny and the lawyers, along with repeated references to his own incredible self-restraint.

In what sounded almost like an afterthought, he announced that he was also breaking up with Chapur. “Maybe there will be another chapter when waters calm with Jenny, but at this point the environment is not conducive to building anything given no one would want to be caught in the middle of what’s now happening,” he wrote.

In fact, his fiancée totally did want to be caught in the middle, and had been demanding that Sanford finally come through with a wedding ring. He had been stalling five years. Once it turned out that he was running without an opponent this fall, Chapur might have reasonably expected that the moment had arrived. Sanford then decreed that he needed to wait two more years until his youngest son was no longer a minor.

Chapur declined. She told The Times’s Jim Rutenberg that she didn’t expect her ex-fiancé to keep it a secret. But she had presumably expected a more tasteful announcement — say pamphlets tossed out of a hot air balloon.

“I learned it from the press today,” she told Rutenberg.

So Sanford has defined himself as the exact incumbent you’d make a special trip to the polls to vote against. But there’s no Democrat in the race. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Jaime Harrison, the Democratic state chairman, in a phone interview. The party, he explained, had high hopes of defeating Sanford last year when its candidate was Elizabeth Colbert Busch. When she lost by nine percentage points, “that kind of deflated the spirits of some people.”

You can understand the Democrats feeling as if there are some things worse than a blank space on the ballot. Last election cycle they failed to keep a close eye on who was running in their senate primary and wound up with an unemployed man who was facing obscenity charges for showing a female college student a pornographic picture. Then, the party was preoccupied with fending off another Senate hopeful who had pleaded guilty to three felony charges related to his business dealings.

Stuff happens in South Carolina. Who can forget the time the agriculture commissioner was indicted for taking payoffs to protect a cockfighting ring? Or Thomas Ravenel, the state treasurer who pleaded guilty to buying cocaine and spent 10 months in prison? He’s now running for the Senate as an independent and appearing in a reality TV show called “Southern Charm” in which he got one of his co-stars pregnant during the first season.

You have to wonder how much space there is between Mark Sanford and reality TV. The voters should demand assurances that he isn’t signed up for an upcoming season of “The Bachelor.” Although if he is, there’s not a heck of a lot they can do about it now.

There’s a lot of crazy here in Savannah, but we’re really terrified that the weaponized lunacy in South Carolina will waft across the river, the only thing between us and them…

Friedman and Bruni

September 17, 2014

In “Take a Deep Breath” The Moustache of Wisdom suggests we should ponder a few important questions about ISIS and the Arab world.  Mr. Bruni, in “Apples and Hurricanes,” says Obama can be measured without the yardstick of Bush.  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom, writing from London:

An existential struggle is taking place in the Arab world today. But is it ours or is it theirs? Before we step up military action in Iraq and Syria, that’s the question that needs answering.

What concerns me most about President Obama’s decision to re-engage in Iraq is that it feels as if it’s being done in response to some deliberately exaggerated fears — fear engendered by YouTube videos of the beheadings of two U.S. journalists — and fear that ISIS, a.k.a., the Islamic State, is coming to a mall near you. How did we start getting so afraid again so fast? Didn’t we build a Department of Homeland Security?

I am not dismissing ISIS. Obama is right that ISIS needs to be degraded and destroyed. But when you act out of fear, you don’t think strategically and you glide over essential questions, like why is it that Shiite Iran, which helped trigger this whole Sunni rebellion in Iraq, is scoffing at even coordinating with us, and Turkey and some Arab states are setting limits on their involvement?

When I read that, I think that Nader Mousavizadeh, who co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners, is correct when he says: “When it comes to intervening in the Arab world’s existential struggle, we have to stop and ask ourselves why we have such a challenge getting them to help us save them.”

So before we get in any deeper, let’s ask some radical questions, starting with: What if we did nothing? George Friedman (no relation), the chairman of Stratfor, raised this idea in his recent essay on Stratfor.com, “The Virtue of Subtlety.” He notes that the ISIS uprising was the inevitable Sunni backlash to being brutally stripped of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite governments and militias in Baghdad and Syria. But then he asks:

Is ISIS “really a problem for the United States? The American interest is not stability but the existence of a dynamic balance of power in which all players are effectively paralyzed so that no one who would threaten the United States emerges. … But the principle of balance of power does not mean that balance must be maintained directly. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have far more at stake in this than the United States. So long as they believe that the United States will attempt to control the situation, it is perfectly rational for them to back off and watch, or act in the margins, or even hinder the Americans. The United States must turn this from a balance of power between Syria and Iraq to a balance of power among this trio of regional powers. They have far more at stake and, absent the United States, they have no choice but to involve themselves. They cannot stand by and watch a chaos that could spread to them.”

Therefore, he concludes, the best U.S. strategy rests in us “doing as little as possible and forcing regional powers into the fray, then in maintaining the balance of power in this coalition.” I am not sure, but it’s worth debating.

Here’s another question: What’s this war really about?

“This is a war over the soul of Islam — that is what differentiates this moment from all others,” argues Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar associated with St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Here is why: For decades, Saudi Arabia has been the top funder of the mosques and schools throughout the Muslim world that promote the most puritanical version of Islam, known as Salafism, which is hostile to modernity, women and religious pluralism, or even Islamic pluralism.

Saudi financing for these groups is a byproduct of the ruling bargain there between the al-Saud family and its Salafist religious establishment, known as the Wahhabis. The al-Sauds get to rule and live how they like behind walls, and the Wahhabis get to propagate Salafist Islam both inside Saudi Arabia and across the Muslim world, using Saudi oil wealth. Saudi Arabia is, in effect, helping to fund both the war against ISIS and the Islamist ideology that creates ISIS members (some 1,000 Saudis are believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria), through Salafist mosques in Europe, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Arab world.

This game has reached its limit. First, because ISIS presents a challenge to Saudi Arabia. ISIS says it is the “caliphate,” the center of Islam. Saudi Arabia believes it is the center. And, second, ISIS is threatening Muslims everywhere. Khalidi told me of a Muslim woman friend in London who says she’s afraid to go out with her head scarf on for fear that people will believe she is with ISIS — just for dressing as a Muslim. Saudi Arabia cannot continue fighting ISIS and feeding the ideology that nurtures ISIS. It will hurt more and more Muslims.

We, too, have to stop tolerating this. For years, the U.S. has “played the role of the central bank of Middle East stability,” noted Mousavizadeh. “Just as the European Central Bank funding delays the day that France has to go through structural reforms, America’s security umbrella,” always there no matter what the Saudis do, “has delayed the day that Saudi Arabia has to face up to its internal contradictions,” and reform its toxic ruling bargain. The future of Islam and our success against ISIS depend on it.

Now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Whenever Barack Obama seems in danger of falling, do we have to hear that George W. Bush made the cliff?

It happened with the economy. For the president’s staunchest defenders, legitimate questions about whether the stimulus was wisely crafted and whether Obamacare was rushed took a back seat to lamentations over the damage that his predecessor had done. Obama wasn’t perfect, but at least he wasn’t Bush.

And with the Middle East, those defenders sometimes turn Bush’s epic mistakes into Obama’s hall pass. Perhaps he hasn’t figured out what’s right, but he isn’t guilty of the original wrong, which is constantly being litigated anew, as if a fresh verdict on the events of 2003 could alter the challenges and stakes of 2014.

On Tuesday there was another spasm of this. As Congress debated the escalation of airstrikes against Islamic extremists, Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, digressed to inveigh against “the wholly unnecessary Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq,” a bell that was rung 11 1/2 years ago and can’t be un-rung now.

And to judge from my inbox lately and the chatter I overhear, what matters to many of Obama’s most stalwart fans isn’t whether he erred in the way he spoke of those extremists, turned his attention to them quickly enough or is now confronting them with the correct dose of belligerence: not too little, not too much.

At least he’s not Bush. He didn’t hallucinate weapons of mass destruction, make a spurious case for war or condone torture. I hear so much about Bush’s failings and Bush’s sins that you’d think he were still huddled over a desk in Washington rather than dabbing at a canvas in Texas.

Enough. It’s true that Obama hasn’t replicated Bush’s offenses, and it’s consoling. But it isn’t exactly reason for a parade, and it doesn’t inoculate him. The culpability that lies elsewhere doesn’t relieve the responsibilities that are now his.

And not being as bad as someone else is hardly the same as being good. Obama can rise far above Bush and still fall short. The presidency isn’t “The Voice” (though it is a little like “Survivor”). You’re not judged only in relation to the other performers who’ve been on stage. You’re judged by how well you respond to the unique circumstances of your time and place — by your ability to clean up the mess, not whether you made it.

This not-as-bad-as defense is a pointless partisan tic. We’ve seen a lot of it over the course of this presidency and will no doubt see a lot of it during the next, be it Democratic or Republican.

The I.R.S. scandal was not as bad as Watergate. (Nothing’s ever as bad as Watergate, which serves a nifty historical function as the gold standard of executive malfeasance and mendacity.)

The bungled rollout of Obamacare was not as bad as the botched response to Katrina.

It’s apples and hurricanes, but they’re put in the same basket, in a manner that recalls a child trying to evade punishment by ratting out a sibling for something worse. Don’t be mad, Mommy, about Operation Fast and Furious and all those guns that ended up with Mexican drug cartels. Ronnie traded arms for hostages as part of this whole Iran-contra affair!

I sometimes like to imagine presidential campaigns waged along these lines and what the candidates’ not-as-bad-as bumper stickers might say.

“Fewer Lies Than Nixon.” “Fewer Sweaters Than Carter.” “Fewer Interns Than Clinton.” “Better Speller Than Quayle.”

It works in the other direction, too, and Obama has definitely suffered plenty of not-as-good-as slings. Former presidents are held up not merely as yardsticks; they’re rulers used to rap the knuckles of the Oval Office’s current inhabitant and beat him over the head.

Smack: That Teddy Roosevelt certainly understood the power of the bully pulpit! Thwack: That L.B.J. really knew how to schmooze! A president is like a second spouse living in the saintly shadow of a first one who perished too soon.

Edmund Burke famously said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. But are those who fixate on it blind to how peculiar the present is, and to the fact that no degree of longing for a lost hero or blaming of a departed villain is going to change what lies ahead?

If we’re determined to glance back at a figure who flatters Obama, let’s really have at it and look all the way to Warren Harding. Golf wasn’t his only distraction. He also had a thing for poker. And when it came to seeming and feeling overwhelmed, the 29th president, an Ohio Republican, reputedly confessed to friends that he was lost in the job.

By that measure Obama is a rock. But it doesn’t make him a boulder.

Cripes.  MoDo or Bobo could have written that.  He should go back to reviewing restaurants or being a judge on The Food Channel…

Krugman’s blog, 9/15/14

September 16, 2014

There were three posts yesterday.  The first was “Cosmic Cato Koch Convergence:”

It’s one of those mornings when several small items I was thinking about blogging about have, oddly, merged into a single story.

I’ve been getting some mail in response to today’s column from people saying (by and large politely) that they predicted the crisis — by which, it turns out, they mean that they correctly diagnosed a housing bubble. Well, so did I — but I nonetheless don’t consider myself to have predicted the crisis, because I had no idea that the consequences of a burst bubble would be as cataclysmic as they were.

That said, even pointing out the bubble got you heckled; I still treasure the sneering piece by John Hinderaker insisting that the only reason I thought there was a bubble was because I hated Bush. Well, who knew — Hinderaker is still out there, as I learn from Bonddad (via the still invaluable Mark Thoma).

But why is he still out there? In part because being wrong is actually a virtue in the eyes of some people, as long as it’s the right kind of wrong. And those people have money and power: I’d actually forgotten about this, but the Koch brothers tried to install Hinderaker on the board of Cato, which they viewed as insufficiently hackish.

Still, think tanks are one thing; this doesn’t happen in the world of scholarship. Oh, wait. Via Daniel Kuehn, we know now that the Kochs sought to control economics hiring at Florida State University. And you have to wonder how much this sort of thing goes on — usually, one suspects, more subtly and implicitly, without as clear a paper trail.

In the 1940s moneyed interests made an initially successful effort to block the teaching of Keynesian economics, although Samuelson somehow slipped through. If you don’t think that similar things can happen now, you’re naive — and the rich are richer and more powerful now than they were then.

Yesterday’s second post was “Replaying the 30s in Slow Motion:”

When the 2008 crisis struck, anyone who knew even a bit of history had nightmares about a replay of the 1930s — not just the depth of the depression, but the downward political spiral into dictatorship and war. But this time was different: the banking crisis was contained, the plunge in output and employment leveled out, and modern Europe’s democratic political culture proved more resilient than that of the interwar years. All clear!

Or maybe not.

In terms of the economics, an effective crisis response was followed by a wrong-headed turn to austerity and, in Europe, a combination of bad monetary policy with a currency system that in some ways is turning out to be worse than the gold standard. The result is that while the first few years of this crisis were far better than the 1930s, at this point Europe’s economic performance is actually worse than it was in 1935.

And the political scene is eroding. One European nation has already reached the point where its leader openly declares his intention to end liberal democracy; thanks to austerity, extremist parties are gaining ground in elections, with Sweden (which squandered its early success) the latest shocker; and of course separatist movements are scaring everyone.

We’re still nowhere like the 30s politically. But you do start to wonder whether self-congratulation over the political handling of Depression 2.0 will eventually look as foolish as the economic optimism of a few years ago.

The last post yesterday was “More Than My Head Talks:”

OK, I didn’t actually think I was giving a big talk this week, but one thing led to another and we will have a public lecture at Hunter College this Wednesday. I wonder what it will be about?

Brooks, Cohen and Nocera

September 16, 2014

In “Goodbye, Organization Man” Bobo actually whines that the global failure to address the Ebola epidemic stems from a much broader crisis in our culture of government.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston points out the following:  “Suddenly Mr. Brooks is outraged that the government he has helped submerge in the bathtub is incapable of mounting an effective, expensive, internationally coordinated effort to respond to disease outbreaks. You can’t rail against big government one day and complain that it’s not there when it’s needed the next.  Brooks has repeatedly advocated for big government to be replaced by grassroots volunteerism, or by a distributed gaggle of local government agencies. But when a virus is knocking at the door of his gated community, suddenly big government is looking a whole lot better.”  Mr. Cohen, in “The Great Unraveling,” sees a time of weakness and hatred, disorientation and doubt, when nobody can see what disaster looms.  In “Criminal Card Games” Mr. Nocera says in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, you have to wonder if data theft has become a condition of modern life.  Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:

Imagine two cities. In City A, town leaders notice that every few weeks a house catches on fire. So they create a fire department — a group of professionals with prepositioned firefighting equipment and special expertise. In City B, town leaders don’t create a fire department. When there’s a fire, they hurriedly cobble together some people and equipment to fight it.

We are City B. We are particularly slow to build institutions to combat long-running problems.

The most obvious example is the fight against jihadism. We’ve been facing Islamist terror for several decades, now, but every time it erupts — in Lebanon, Nigeria, Sudan, Syria and beyond — leaders start from scratch and build some new ad hoc coalition to fight it.

The most egregious example is global health emergencies. Every few years, some significant epidemic strikes, and somebody suggests that we form a Medical Expeditionary Corps, a specialized organization that would help coordinate and execute the global response. Several years ago, then-Senator Bill Frist went so far as to prepare a bill proposing such a force. But, as always, nothing came of it.

The result, right now, is unnecessary deaths from the Ebola virus in Africa. Ebola is a recurring problem, yet the world seems unprepared. The response has been slow and uncoordinated.

The virus’s spread, once linear, is now exponential. As Michael Gerson pointed out in The Washington Post, the normal countermeasures — isolation, contact tracing — are rendered increasingly irrelevant by the rate of increase. Treatment centers open and are immediately filled to twice capacity as people die on the streets outside. An Oxford University forecast warns as many as 15 more countries are vulnerable to outbreaks. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, warned: “At this rate, we will never break the transmission chain, and the virus will overwhelm us.”

The catastrophe extends beyond the disease. Economies are rocked as flights are canceled and outsiders flee. Ray Chambers, a philanthropist and U.N. special envoy focused on global health, points out the impact on health more broadly.  For example, people in the early stages of malaria show similar symptoms to Ebola and other diseases. Many hesitate to seek treatment fearing they’ll get sent to an Ebola isolation center. So death rates from malaria, pneumonia and other common diseases could rise, as further Ebola cases fail to be diagnosed.

The World Health Organization has recently come out with an action plan but lacks logistical capabilities. President Obama asked for a strategy, but that was two months ago and the government is only now coming up with a strong comprehensive plan. Up until now, aid has been scattershot. The Pentagon opened a 25-bed field hospital in Liberia. The U.S. donated five ambulances to Sierra Leone. Coordination has just not been there.

At root, this is a governance failure. The disease spreads fastest in places where the health care infrastructure is lacking or nonexistent. Liberia, for example, is being overrun while Ivory Coast has put in a series of policies to prevent an outbreak. The few doctors and nurses in the affected places have trouble acquiring the safety basics: gloves and body bags. More than 100, so far, have died fighting the outbreak.

But it’s not just a failure of governance in Africa. It’s a failure of governance around the world. I wonder if we are looking at the results of a cultural shift.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

The Ebola crisis is another example that shows that this is misguided. The big, stolid agencies — the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies — are the bulwarks of the civil and global order. Public and nonprofit management, the stuff that gets derided as “overhead,” really matters. It’s as important to attract talent to health ministries as it is to spend money on specific medicines.

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing broad, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.

It was a time of breakup. The most successful union in history, forged on an island in the North Sea in 1707, headed toward possible dissolution — not because it had failed (refugees from across the seas still clamored to get into it), nor even because of new hatreds between its peoples. The northernmost citizens were bored. They were disgruntled. They were irked, in some insidious way, by the south and its moneyed capital, an emblem to them of globalization and inequality. They imagined they had to control their National Health Service in order to save it even though they already controlled it through devolution and might well have less money for its preservation (not that it was threatened in the first place) as an independent state. The fact that the currency, the debt, the revenue, the defense, the solvency and the European Union membership of such a newborn state were all in doubt did not appear to weigh much on a decision driven by emotion, by urges, by a longing to be heard in the modern cacophony — and to heck with the day after. If all else failed, oil would come to the rescue (unless somebody else owned it or it just ran out).

It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could damn well police itself. The nation had bridges to build and education systems to fix. Civil wars between Arabs could fester. Enemies might even kill other enemies, a low-cost gain. Middle Eastern borders could fade; they were artificial colonial lines on a map. Shiite could battle Sunni, and Sunni Shiite, there was no stopping them. Like Europe’s decades-long religious wars, these wars had to run their course. The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rule book had been ripped up.

It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes. Europe’s Muslims felt the ugly backlash from the depravity of the decapitators, who were adept at Facebooking their message. The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms. Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress. Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century. The great rising nations of vast populations held the fate of the world in their hands but hardly seemed to care.

It was a time of fever. People in West Africa bled from the eyes.

It was a time of disorientation. Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

Cripes.  He needs to take a pill…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

What is it going to take to get serious about data breaches?

I ask this question in the wake of the recent Home Depot breach, in which the “bad guys” — presumably cybercriminals in Russia — apparently penetrated the company’s point of sale terminals and came away with an untold number of credit and debit card data. (Home Depot acknowledges that all 2,200 stores in the United States and Canada were likely hacked, but hasn’t yet revealed the number of cards from which data were stolen.)

This, of course, comes after the Target breach of late 2013, in which some 40 million people had their credit card information stolen. Which comes after the Global Payments breach of 2012 and the Sony breach of 2011. All of which come after the T.J. Maxx breach of 2007, in which 94 million credit and debit card records were stolen in an 18-month period.

That’s right: Seven years have passed between the huge T.J. Maxx breach and the huge Home Depot breach — and nothing has changed. Have we become resigned to the idea that, as a condition of modern life, our personal financial data will be hacked on a regular basis? It is sure starting to seem that way.

The Home Depot breach came to light in the usual way. On Sept. 2, a reporter named Brian Krebs, who specializes in cybercrime and operates the website Krebs on Security, broke the news to his readers. Krebs, who is as deeply sourced as any reporter in the country, almost always breaks the news of a new breach. He also reported that the “malware” had been doing its dirty work at Home Depot since April or May. And he discovered that millions of card numbers were being sold on a website called Rescator.cc, which Bloomberg Businessweek recently described as the “Amazon.com of the black market.”

(Interestingly, they are being sold in batches under the names “American Sanctions” and “European Sanction” — an apparent reference to the recent sanctions against Russia.)

The company — “always the last to know,” Krebs says — hastily pulled together some security experts who, sure enough, confirmed the breach. In this instance, Home Depot released a statement saying that it was investigating the breach on Sept. 3, the day after the Krebs report, and confirmed the breach on Sept. 8. As these things go, that’s lightning speed.

Of course, in its materials, the company insists that it cares deeply about its customers’ data and will stop at nothing to plug the leak. But the damage has already been done. Home Depot also claims that debit card P.I.N.’s were not stolen. There is little solace in that, however; the crooks use weak bank security to change the P.I.N., after which they can use it. Sure enough, Krebs’s banking sources have told him that they “are reporting a steep increase over the past few days in fraudulent A.T.M. withdrawals on customer accounts.”

Why the rash of breaches? “It’s easy money,” said Avivah Litan, a security expert at Gartner Inc. “The criminals are distributing this malware, so why not use it? It’s like winning the lottery.”

Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, noted that months before the attack on Home Depot began, the F.B.I. alerted retailers about being more vigilant about point-of-sale cyberattacks. The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Home Depot had, in fact, begun the process of strengthening its systems. But it moved so slowly that the criminals had months to vacuum card data before being discovered. Meanwhile, Bloomberg Businessweek found two unnamed former Home Depot managers who claimed that they were told to “settle for ‘C-level security’ because ambitious upgrades would be costly and might disrupt the operation of critical business systems.”

For years, the banks and the retail industry have spent more time accusing each other of causing the problem than seeking a solution. By October 2015, the United States is supposed to move to a more secure card system, using a chip and P.I.N. instead of a magnetic stripe, as Europe did years ago. But even that won’t put an end to data breaches. It will make it harder and more expensive for criminals to crack, but not impossible.

Which is why the federal government needs to get involved. With the banks and retailers at loggerheads, only the government has the ability to force a solution — or at least make it painful enough for companies with lax security to improve.

As it turns out, there are plenty of congressional initiatives to crack down on companies with weak data security, including a bill that was filed in February and co-sponsored by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. When I asked someone in Markey’s office whether the bill was getting any traction, she replied, “It’s 2014.”

Apparently, we’re on our own.

Krugman’s blog, 9/14/14

September 15, 2014

There was one post yesterday, “Wild Words, Brain Worms, and Civility:”

Noah Smith writes that one should not be rude about people you disagree with, because they might turn out to be right. Indeed; what possible purpose can be served by, say, referring to Austrian economics as a brain worm? Oh, wait.

Actually, I think that Noah was doing the right thing when he brought in the brain worms, and is off on the wrong track on the civility thing. So let me make the case for brain worms.

First, picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. “Words ought to be a little wild,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking.” You could say, “I’m dubious about the case for expansionary austerity, which rests on questionable empirical evidence and zzzzzzzz…”; or you could accuse austerians of believing in the Confidence Fairy. Which do you think is more effective at challenging a really bad economic doctrine?

Beyond that, civility is a gesture of respect — and sure enough, the loudest demands for civility come from those who have done nothing to earn that respect. Noah felt (and was) justified in ridiculing the Austrians because they don’t argue in good faith; faced with a devastating failure of their prediction about inflation, they didn’t concede that they were wrong and try to explain why. Instead, they denied reality or tried to redefine the meaning of inflation.

And if you look at the uncivil remarks by people like, well, me, you’ll find that they are similarly aimed at people arguing in bad faith. I talk now and then about zombie and cockroach ideas. Zombies are ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but keep shambling along — e.g. the claim that all of Europe’s troubled debtors were fiscally irresponsible before the crisis; cockroaches are ideas that you thought we’d gotten rid of, but keep on coming back, like the claim that Keynes would never have called for fiscal stimulus in the face of current debt levels (Britain in the 1930s had much higher debt to GDP than it does now). Well, what I’m doing is going after bad-faith economics — economics that keeps trotting out claims that have already been discredited.

Nor are zombies and cockroaches the only kinds of bad faith; the worst, as far as I’m concerned, involves refusing to take responsibility for your actual statements. “The failure of high inflation to materialize doesn’t mean that I was wrong, because I only said that there was a risk of inflation”. “When I said that Obamacare spending adds a trillion dollars to the deficit, I wasn’t misleading readers, because I didn’t actually deny that the ACA as a whole reduces the deficit.” And of course, people who engage in that kind of bad faith screech loudly about civility when they’re caught at it.

When there’s an honest, good-faith economic debate — say, the ongoing controversy about the effects of quantitative easing — by all means let’s be civil. But in my experience demands for civility almost always come from people who have forfeited the right to the respect they demand.

Blow and Krugman

September 15, 2014

In “Ray Rice and His Rage” Mr. Blow says domestic violence is a societal scourge that must be constantly called out and constantly condemned.  In “How to Get It Wrong” Prof. Krugman says economists were worse than economics and policy makers were worse still.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The sordid Ray Rice scandal has opened a much-needed dialogue about domestic violence.

In February Rice and Janay Palmer, then his fiancée and now his wife, had an altercation at an Atlantic City casino that left Palmer unconscious. A tape surfaced of Rice dragging Palmer’s limp body from the elevator, hovering over her. At no point does he appear to attend to her, appear shocked at what he has done to her or appear to have much concern for her at all.

He doesn’t even pull down her skirt.

The next month a grand jury indicted Rice on a charge of third-degree aggravated assault.

The Baltimore Ravens’ coach, John Harbaugh, stood by Rice, saying, “He will be part of our team,” and continuing:

“He’s a person of character. The thing that’s really important is to be able to support the person without condoning the action. He makes a mistake. There’s no justifying what happened. When you drink too much in public, those kind of things happen.”

Whatever one may think of Rice’s character, “those kind of things” don’t just “happen.” That is too casual a dismissal of a very serious issue.

In May Rice was accepted into a pretrial diversion program that allowed him to avoid prosecution. A couple of days later Rice held a news conference with his wife by his side. He apologized to his coaches, his fans and “everyone who was affected by this situation that me and my wife were in.” He did not, however, use that opportunity to publicly apologize to his wife, although he thanked her for loving him “where I was weak and building up where I was strong.” He said that he and his wife had been in therapy and that the therapy had been helpful.

He even attempted to defend himself using the most unfortunate of metaphors: “One thing I can say is that sometimes in life, you will fail. But I won’t call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down; it’s not getting back up.”

His wife said at the news conference: “I do deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night.” It was a line that caused many to cringe. It is hard to feel anything but sadness for her.

The N.F.L. suspended Rice for a measly two games. The nation was outraged, but the league defended its decision. But then another tape was made public showing Rice and Palmer in the elevator, with him punching her in the face and knocking her unconscious. Now the N.F.L. and the Ravens were embarrassed, and their callous lack of concern for the abuse of an intimate partner was laid bare. The Ravens released Rice, and the N.F.L. suspended him indefinitely.

Now, there are many issues here.

How was Rice able to avoid trial on the original charge? Why did it take the second tape for the N.F.L. to act more forcefully in the case? Did anyone at the N.F.L. see the second tape before it was made public? Could anyone have if he’d tried harder to find it? It seems that there were multiple failures here.

But, in a way, those are secondary to the issue of the abuse itself and why people stay in relationships with abusers.

It is a couple’s decision — individually and jointly — whether a union is salvageable and worth the effort to save it. But too often, victims of abuse feel that they have no choice. They can end up staying with an abuser for myriad complex reasons, many of which are regrettable. Often, they just feel trapped. Staying doesn’t excuse the abuse itself, and it can actually embolden the abuser.

We must treat intimate partner violence for what it is: a societal scourge that must be constantly called out and constantly condemned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “More than one-third of women in the United States (35.6 percent, or approximately 42.4 million) have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime,” and nearly one in three women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner. To put some of this in percentage terms, 30.3 percent of women in the United States have been “slapped, pushed, or shoved by an intimate partner” in their lifetime.

This is, of course, not just a United States issue. As the United Nations makes clear, “Violence against women is a universal phenomenon.” According to the U.N., “Up to seven in 10 women around the world experience physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lifetime,” and “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime.”

If there is anything to be optimistic about, it is this: According to a Department of Justice report issued in April, “The rate of domestic violence declined 63 percent, from 13.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 1994 to 5.0 per 1,000 in 2012.”

We can push these numbers even lower, but first we need people like Rice, the Ravens and those in the N.F.L. to behave more honorably than they have in this case.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week I participated in a conference organized by Rethinking Economics, a student-run group hoping to promote, you guessed it, a rethinking of economics. And Mammon knows that economics needs rethinking in the wake of a disastrous crisis, a crisis that was neither predicted nor prevented.

It seems to me, however, that it’s important to realize that the enormous intellectual failure of recent years took place at several levels. Clearly, economics as a discipline went badly astray in the years — actually decades — leading up to the crisis. But the failings of economics were greatly aggravated by the sins of economists, who far too often let partisanship or personal self-aggrandizement trump their professionalism. Last but not least, economic policy makers systematically chose to hear only what they wanted to hear. And it is this multilevel failure — not the inadequacy of economics alone — that accounts for the terrible performance of Western economies since 2008.

In what sense did economics go astray? Hardly anyone predicted the 2008 crisis, but that in itself is arguably excusable in a complicated world. More damning was the widespread conviction among economists that such a crisis couldn’t happen. Underlying this complacency was the dominance of an idealized vision of capitalism, in which individuals are always rational and markets always function perfectly.

Now, idealized models have a useful role to play in economics (and indeed in any discipline), as ways to clarify your thinking. But starting in the 1980s it became harder and harder to publish anything questioning these idealized models in major journals. Economists trying to take account of imperfect reality faced what Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, hardly a radical figure (and someone I’ve sparred with) once called “new neoclassical repression.” And it should go without saying that assuming away irrationality and market failure meant assuming away the very possibility of the kind of catastrophe that overtook the developed world six years ago.

Still, many applied economists retained a more realistic vision of the world, and textbook macroeconomics, while it didn’t predict the crisis, did a pretty good job of predicting how things would play out in the aftermath. Low interest rates in the face of big budget deficits, low inflation in the face of a rapidly growing money supply, and sharp economic contraction in countries imposing fiscal austerity came as surprises to the talking heads on TV, but they were just what the basic models predicted under the conditions that prevailed postcrisis.

But while economic models didn’t perform all that badly after the crisis, all too many influential economists did — refusing to acknowledge error, letting naked partisanship trump analysis, or both. “Hey, I claimed that another depression wasn’t possible, but I wasn’t wrong, it’s all because businesses are reacting to the future failure of Obamacare.”

You might say that this is just human nature, and it’s true that while the most shocking intellectual malfeasance has come from conservative economists, some economists on the left have also seemed more interested in defending their turf and sniping at professional rivals than in getting it right. Still, this bad behavior has come as a shock, especially to those who thought we were having a real conversation.

But would it have mattered if economists had behaved better? Or would people in power have done the same thing regardless?

If you imagine that policy makers have spent the past five or six years in thrall to economic orthodoxy, you’ve been misled. On the contrary, key decision makers have been highly receptive to innovative, unorthodox economic ideas — ideas that also happen to be wrong but which offered excuses to do what these decision makers wanted to do anyway.

The great majority of policy-oriented economists believe that increasing government spending in a depressed economy creates jobs, and that slashing it destroys jobs — but European leaders and U.S. Republicans decided to believe the handful of economists asserting the opposite. Neither theory nor history justifies panic over current levels of government debt, but politicians decided to panic anyway, citing unvetted (and, it turned out, flawed) research as justification.

I’m not saying either that economics is in good shape or that its flaws don’t matter. It isn’t, they do, and I’m all for rethinking and reforming a field.

The big problem with economic policy is not, however, that conventional economics doesn’t tell us what to do. In fact, the world would be in much better shape than it is if real-world policy had reflected the lessons of Econ 101. If we’ve made a hash of things — and we have — the fault lies not in our textbooks, but in ourselves.

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd and Friedman

September 14, 2014

In “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians” The Putz says Senator Ted Cruz’s stunt at a conference on religious persecution has only increased his co-religionists’ isolation.  I just love the way he uses “co-religionists,” implying that he and Cruz aren’t both (at least nominally) Christians.  In “Throw the Bums Out” MoDo says when you enable men who beat women, you’re in danger of getting sacked.  I’ll bet she thought with both hands all week to come up with that play on words…  The Moustache of Wisdom has a question:  “What’s Their Plan?”  He says the fight against ISIS is a two-front campaign. We keep making it about us and Obama. But that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Here’s The Putz:

When the long, grim history of Christianity’s disappearance from the Middle East is written, Ted Cruz’s performance last week at a conference organized to highlight the persecution of his co-religionists will merit at most a footnote. But sometimes a footnote can help illuminate a tragedy’s unhappy whole.

For decades, the Middle East’s increasingly beleaguered Christian communities have suffered from a fatal invisibility in the Western world. And their plight has been particularly invisible in the United States, which as a majority-Christian superpower might have been expected to provide particular support.

There are three reasons for this invisibility. The political left in the West associates Christian faith with dead white male imperialism and does not come naturally to the recognition that Christianity is now the globe’s most persecuted religion. And in the Middle East the Israel-Palestine question, with its colonial overtones, has been the left’s great obsession, whereas the less ideologically convenient plight of Christians under Islamic rule is often left untouched.

To America’s strategic class, meanwhile, the Middle East’s Christians simply don’t have the kind of influence required to matter. A minority like the Kurds, geographically concentrated and well-armed, can be a player in the great game, a potential United States ally. But except in Lebanon, the region’s Christians are too scattered and impotent to offer much quid for the superpower’s quo. So whether we’re pursuing stability by backing the anti-Christian Saudis or pursuing transformation by toppling Saddam Hussein (and unleashing the furies on Iraq’s religious minorities), our policy makers have rarely given Christian interests any kind of due.

Then, finally, there is the American right, where one would expect those interests to find a greater hearing. But the ancient churches of the Middle East (Eastern Orthodox, Chaldean, Maronites, Copt, Assyrian) are theologically and culturally alien to many American Catholics and evangelicals. And the great cause of many conservative Christians in the United States is the state of Israel, toward which many Arab Christians harbor feelings that range from the complicated to the hostile.

Which brings us to Ted Cruz, the conservative senator and preacher’s son, who was invited to give the keynote address last week at a Washington, D.C., summit conference organized in response to religious cleansing by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The conference was an ecumenical affair, featuring an unusual gathering of patriarchs and clerics (few of whom agree on much) from a wide range of Christian churches. But Middle Eastern reality and the Christian position in the region being what they are, this meant that it included (and was attacked for including) some attendees who were hostile to Israeli policy or had said harsh things about the Jewish state, and some who had dealings with Israel’s enemies — Assad and Hezbollah, in particular.

Perhaps (I think almost certainly) with this reality in mind, Cruz began his remarks with a lecture on how Assad, Hezbollah and ISIS are indistinguishable, and paused to extol Israel’s founding, and then offered the sweeping claim that the region’s Christians actually “have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

The first (debatable) proposition earned applause, as did his calls for Jewish-Christian unity. But at the last claim, with which many Lebanese and Palestinian Christians strongly disagree, the audience offered up some boos, at which point Cruz began attacking “those who hate Israel,” the boos escalated, things fell apart and he walked offstage.

Many conservatives think Cruz acquitted himself admirably, and he’s earned admiring headlines around the right-wing web. There is a certain airless logic to this pro-Cruz take — that because Assad and Hezbollah are murderers and enemies of Israel, anyone who deals with them deserves to be confronted, and if that confrontation meets with boos, you’ve probably exposed anti-Semites who deserve to be attacked still more.

But this logic shows not a scintilla of sympathy for what it’s actually like to be an embattled religious minority, against whom genocide isn’t just being threatened but actually carried out.

Some of the leaders of the Middle East’s Christians have made choices that merit criticism; some of them harbor attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors that merit condemnation. But Israel is a rich, well-defended, nuclear-armed nation-state; its supporters, and especially its American Christian supporters, can afford to allow a population that’s none of the above to organize to save itself from outright extinction without also demanding applause for Israeli policy as the price of sympathy and support.

If Cruz felt that he couldn’t in good conscience address an audience of persecuted Arab Christians without including a florid, “no greater ally” preamble about Israel, he could have withdrawn from the event. The fact that he preferred to do it this way instead says a lot — none of it good — about his priorities and instincts.

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

What an unmitigated ass he is.  Now here’s our weekly dose of MoDo:

When Roger Goodell was growing up here, he had the best possible example of moral leadership. His father, a moderate New York Republican appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to Bobby Kennedy’s Senate seat after the assassination, risked his career to come out against the Vietnam War.

“We should not be engaged in a land war 10,000 miles away,” he wrote to Rockefeller.

Egged on by Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon never blanched at putting his political viability ahead of the lives of kids on the battlefield, but Charles Goodell would not do that. In September 1969, the senator tried to force the president to withdraw all the troops faster by introducing a bill, S-3000, withholding money. He could have waited until after his election the following year, thus garnering President Nixon’s support, but he was that rare creature that seems to have vanished from the Washington landscape: a profile in courage.

His moral stance brought down the immoral Furies: Nixon, Agnew and Kissinger, who suggested Goodell was treasonous. As his five sons, including 11-year-old Roger, watched in dismay, the vengeful Nixon White House schemed against Goodell’s re-election, and, at 44, his political career was kaput.

The two legacies from his dad, Bryan Curtis wrote in Grantland last year, could well be “a measure of his dad’s idealism, his contrarianism, his stubbornness. And I bet we’d also find a kind of defense mechanism that develops when you see your dad destroyed on a public stage. An instinct that makes you think, I won’t let that happen to me.”

Now the N.F.L. commissioner, he proudly keeps a framed copy of the original S-3000 on the wall of his office on Park Avenue and told The Times’s George Vecsey in 2010 that it “was a valuable lesson to me.”

But what was the lesson? Goodell is acting more like Nixon, the man who covered up crimes, than like his father, who sacrificed his career to save lives.

As ESPN’s Keith Olbermann nicely summed it up, “Mr. Goodell is an enabler of men who beat women,” and he must resign.

Goodell likes to present himself as a law-and-order sheriff bent on integrity, whose motto is: “Protect the shield.” But that doesn’t seem to include protecting the victims of violence or American Indians who see the Washington team’s name as a slur. As with concussions, the league covered up until the public forced its hand.

The commissioner, who has been a sanctimonious judge for eight years, suddenly got lenient. His claim that it was “ambiguous about what actually happened” in the Atlantic City casino elevator between Ray Rice and his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, during the Valentine’s Day massacre was risible to start with. What did he think happened? The man was dragging out an unconscious woman like a sack of mulch.

Goodell’s credibility took another hit on Thursday, when Don Van Natta Jr. wrote on ESPN.com that four sources close to Rice had said that the player had admitted to the commissioner during a disciplinary meeting in his office on June 16 that he had hit his girlfriend in the face and knocked her out. This makes sense since Goodell is known for being intolerant of lies, and since Rice probably assumed the commissioner had seen the video. Yet Goodell only suspended him for two games, two less than if he’d been caught taking Adderall.

It has been suggested that the N.F.L. give players purple gear (oddly the color of Rice’s Ravens team) next month in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But they may as well just wear green. The Wall Street Journal reported that the greed league even asked entertainers to pay for the privilege of playing the Super Bowl halftime show.

Goodell was hired by the owners to be a grow-the-pie guy, which means shielding the throw-the-punch guy. Since he became commissioner in 2006, the league’s 32 gridiron fiefdoms have increased in value by $10.9 billion, according to Forbes. He wants to bring in $25 billion annually by 2027. Goodell himself is making more than $44 million.

Owners shrug off moral turpitude because when they pay a lot of money for a player, they don’t want him sitting out games, even if he’s been accused of a crime, because every game they lose means less merchandise and fewer ticket sales. So, as the N.F.L. continues its perp walk — on Friday, one of its best running backs, the Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, was indicted on charges of abusing his 4-year-old son in Texas — Goodell looks the other way.

They think they can get away with anything now, even with women being almost 50 percent of their fan base. And maybe they can. Twenty million people tuned in to watch the Ravens play Thursday night — even without the irony of prerecorded Rihanna’s performance kicking things off — and the papers were filled with sickening pictures of women proudly wearing Rice’s No. 27 jersey.

The last sports commissioner who didn’t kowtow to owners may have been Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who banned Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox players from baseball for life even though they were acquitted in 1921 and went out with the jury to eat to celebrate. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis said, “baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.”

If only.

And now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

There are three things in life that you should never do ambivalently: get married, buy a house or go to war. Alas, we’re about to do No. 3. Should we?

President Obama clearly took this decision to lead the coalition to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, with deep ambivalence. How could he not? Our staying power is ambiguous, our enemy is barbarous, our regional allies are duplicitous, our European allies are feckless and the Iraqis and Syrians we’re trying to help are fractious. There is not a straight shooter in the bunch.

Other than that, it’s just like D-Day.

Consider Saudi Arabia. It’s going to help train Free Syrian Army soldiers, but, at the same time, is one of the biggest sources of volunteer jihadists in Syria. And, according to a secret 2009 U.S. study signed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and divulged by WikiLeaks, private “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Turkey allowed foreign jihadists to pass into and out of Syria and has been an important market for oil that ISIS is smuggling out of Iraq for cash. Iran built the E.F.P.’s — explosively formed penetrators — that Iraqi Shiite militias used to help drive America out of Iraq and encouraged Iraq’s Shiite leaders to strip Iraqi Sunnis of as much power and money as possible, which helped create the ISIS Sunni counterrevolt. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, deliberately allowed ISIS to emerge so he could show the world that he was not the only mass murderer in Syria. And Qatar is with us Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and against us Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fortunately, it takes the weekends off.

Meanwhile, back home, Obama knows that the members of his own party and the Republican Party who are urging him to bomb ISIS will be the first to run for the hills if we get stuck, fail or accidentally bomb a kindergarten class.

So why did the president decide to go ahead? It’s a combination of a legitimate geostrategic concern — if ISIS jihadists consolidate their power in the heart of Iraq and Syria, it could threaten some real islands of decency, like Kurdistan, Jordan and Lebanon, and might one day generate enough capacity to harm the West more directly — and the polls. Obama clearly feels drummed into this by the sudden shift in public opinion after ISIS’s ghastly videotaped beheadings of two American journalists.

O.K., but given this cast of characters, is there any way this Obama plan can end well? Only if we are extremely disciplined and tough-minded about how, when and for whom we use our power.

Before we step up the bombing campaign on ISIS, it needs to be absolutely clear on whose behalf we are fighting. ISIS did not emerge by accident and from nowhere. It is the hate-child of two civil wars in which the Sunni Muslims have been crushed. One is the vicious civil war in Syria in which the Iranian-backed Alawite-Shiite regime has killed roughly 200,000 people, many of them Sunni Muslims, with chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And the other is the Iraqi civil war in which the Iranian-backed Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki systematically stripped the Sunnis of Iraq of their power and resources.

There will be no self-sustained stability unless those civil wars are ended and a foundation is laid for decent governance and citizenship. Only Arabs and Muslims can do that by ending their sectarian wars and tribal feuds. We keep telling ourselves that the problem is “training,” when the real problem is governance. We spent billions of dollars training Iraqi soldiers who ran away from ISIS’s path — not because they didn’t have proper training, but because they knew that their officers were corrupt hacks who were not appointed on merit and that the filthy Maliki government was unworthy of fighting for. We so underestimate how starved Arabs are, in all these awakenings, for clean, decent governance.

Never forget, this is a two-front war: ISIS is the external enemy, and sectarianism and corruption in Iraq and Syria are the internal enemies. We can and should help degrade the first, but only if Iraqis and Syrians, Sunnis and Shiites, truly curtail the second. If our stepped-up bombing, in Iraq and Syria, gets ahead of their reconciliation, we will become the story and the target. And that is exactly what ISIS is waiting for.

ISIS loses if our moderate Arab-Muslim partners can unite and make this a civil war within Islam — a civil war in which America is the air force for the Sunnis and Shiites of decency versus those of barbarism. ISIS wins if it can make this America’s war with Sunni Islam — a war where America is the Shiite/Alawite air force against Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. ISIS will use every bit of its Twitter/Facebook network to try to depict it as the latter, and draw more recruits.

We keep making this story about us, about Obama, about what we do. But it is not about us. It is about them and who they want to be. It’s about a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism and needs to learn how to coexist. It’s the 21st century. It’s about time.

Krugman’s blog, 9/12/14

September 13, 2014

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Maastricht in a Kilt:”

Simon Wren-Lewis says more clearly what I’ve been trying to get at with regard to the economics of Scottish independence. It would be one thing to make the sober case that independence is worth it despite the economic costs and risks; but the SNP has been claiming that there are no costs and risks, which is just wrong.

As he says, the obvious parallel is the push for the euro; in pursuit of the political vision of European unity, leaders waved away the obvious economic problems. I don’t know how many times I encountered arguments along the lines of “You Americans are only raising these objections because you don’t want a competitor to the dollar”, which wasn’t the point at all. And sure enough, the euro has turned into one of the great economic disasters of history, dealing a devastating blow to the very cause of European unity it was supposed to serve.

It so happens that some of the economic issues involving Scottish independence are the same: euro enthusiasts insisted that there would be no problem in creating a unified currency without a unified government, the SNP is insisting that there is no problem with maintaining a unified currency while breaking up the United Kingdom. But there is even less excuse this time around, since we have the euro experience to enlighten us.

If Scottish voters won’t support independence unless they can keep the pound, then a Yes vote next week will have been won on false pretenses. Don’t go there!

Yesterday’s second post was musical, “Friday Night Music: Cheryl Wheeler:”

For some reason I’ve been taking a music trip down memory lane, back to the late 80s, when I was listening a lot to several singer-songwriters — Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, and Cheryl Wheeler; this song is as gorgeous as I remembered:

Nocera and Collins

September 13, 2014

In “N.F.L. Stands By Its Leader” Mr. Nocera says Roger Goodell is very good at doing exactly what his owners want.  In “Candidates Playing Possum” Ms. Collins says control Control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of just a few close races.  She has a question:  Which candidates will show up and debate their opponents?  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In 2006, the year Roger Goodell was named commissioner of the National Football League, the Washington Redskins were the most valuable team in football, according to Forbes magazine, with a valuation of $1.4 billion. Washington’s revenue that year was $303 million, with profits of more than $108 million. In second place came the New England Patriots, valued by Forbes at $1.18 billion, followed by the Dallas Cowboys at $1.17 billion.

Fast forward to Forbes’s most recent financial analysis of N.F.L. teams, published earlier this month. Today, the Dallas Cowboys, the No. 1 team, are valued at $3.2 billion, almost triple their valuation of just eight years ago, with revenue of $560 million and profits of $246 million. The New England Patriots, meanwhile, saw their valuation jump to $2.6 billion. The Washington team, though now in third place, is still worth $1 billion more than it was in 2006.

And these numbers are, if anything, an understatement: The Buffalo Bills were just sold for $1.4 billion, a record price for a professional football team. Forbes had estimated the Bills’ value at “only” $935 million.

If you want to understand why Goodell’s job is almost certainly safe, despite his complete botch of the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the many calls for his ouster, this is why: The only people who can fire him are the 32 N.F.L. owners — and they have zero interest in letting him go. After all, he makes them money. Currently, the N.F.L. takes in about $10 billion overall; Goodell has told the owners he wants to make it a $25 billion business by the year 2027. You can practically see their mouths watering at the prospect.

Just listen to them circling the wagons: John Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants, has said flatly that Goodell’s job is not in jeopardy. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, has come to his defense. In 2012, the owners paid Goodell a staggering $44.2 million. “I think he’s worth it,” Kraft told The Times’s Ken Belson in February, when Goodell’s pay was revealed.

Of course there is another reason the owners think he is “worth it.” He takes the heat for them when they need him to. Daniel Snyder, the owner in Washington, is adamant that he will never give up the nickname “Redskins,” even though it is deeply insulting to Native Americans. Goodell backs him up. The owners don’t want to pay pensions to their referees? Goodell locks them out. “It’s a mistake to view Goodell as powerful,” says Gregg Easterbrook, the author of “The King of Sports: Why Football Must Be Reformed.” “The owners have all the power.”

And so it is in the recent controversy. Football is a violent game, and though they’d never say so out loud, N.F.L. owners accept some violence outside the white lines as an inevitable consequence. Indeed, it happens frequently enough that USA Today compiles a database of N.F.L. players who have been arrested.

The website Sidespin, using that database, found 56 examples of domestic violence committed by pro football players in the years since Goodell became commissioner. Once, in 2011, a player was suspended for the rest of the season — but that was by his team, the Minnesota Vikings, not Goodell. Another time, in 2006, a player was suspended by the league for two games. In every other instance where N.F.L. headquarters mandated a punishment, it was only a one-game suspension. According to Sidespin, in nearly three dozen cases of domestic violence, the N.F.L. took no action at all.

No wonder Goodell thought that his original two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for knocking his then-fiancée out cold was enough: He had never given out a longer suspension for domestic violence during his time as commissioner. Then came the leak of the video of Rice’s punch — followed by the scene of him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of the elevator door — which was so horrifying that even the N.F.L. couldn’t look the other way.

Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely and gave an interview to CBS News in which he tried to accept the blame for his mistake but came across as evasive and defensive. And he ordered up an internal investigation to be headed by Robert Mueller, the former F.B.I. director.

There is a small chance, I suppose, that Mueller will discover that Goodell lied when he said he had not seen the video before it became public earlier this week. In that case, the owners would have no choice but to fire him. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. What is far more likely is that Goodell will survive the calls for his ouster and go back to doing the one thing he truly knows how to do: Make money for his overlords, pro football’s owners.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Election season! Tension mounts! Longtime public servants are aware that the least little slip and they could be out the door. Forced, like ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to labor in the sweatshops of the investment banking industry.

With $1.4 million in signing bonuses. Do you think that’s why he quit the House early, people? I totally believed he just wanted to give his successor a head start.

I digress. We’re talking today about democracy. And debates. Candidates should all feel obliged to debate their opponents. It’s a sign of respect to the public. Even for incumbents who are so safe that they could get caught having an assignation with an armadillo and still get 60 percent of the vote.

Our fixation on debates goes back to that Illinois Senate race when Abraham Lincoln faced off seven times against Stephen Douglas. Their battles were so electric that Lincoln published transcripts in a book, which his fans scooped up eagerly. Voters today may wonder why their Senate debates can’t be like Lincoln-Douglas. Senate candidates today may wonder why their audiences can’t be like the ones in 1858, when people sat enthralled while one man spoke for 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute response and then a final 30-minute comeback.

This year, control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of a handful of states. Almost all of them are going to involve debates, and I can pretty much guarantee none of them will later be published as best-selling books.

Several have already degenerated into debates about the debates. Former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, a Republican, said his successor, Democrat Al Franken, gave the state a “big middle corn dog” when Franken declined the traditional debate at the Minnesota State Fair. That state fair can be a pretty rowdy venue. I know you think all Minnesotans are calm and well-behaved, but really, give them enough deep-fried foods and they can get carried away.

Franken, who did spend seven days campaigning at the fair, posing for selfies and eating what his campaign spokesperson said was a large quantity of roasted Minnesota sweet corn, has already done one debate and is scheduled for three more, so I don’t think he can be accused of dissing his constituents.

However, it’s sort of sad when the old political traditions fall by the wayside. This year in Florida, the gubernatorial candidates failed to show up for the annual Wausau Possum Festival, which is usually a must-show event. Perhaps Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist don’t like possums. Maybe they were averse to the custom of politicians walking onstage and dangling the animals by their tails. Really, it’s the kind of thing that can come back to bite you.

We have mixed feelings about the possums. However, we do want debates. Even if we are planning to totally ignore them, we want our candidates out there.

And, in most of the major races, they’re ready to go. Although in Michigan, the Republican Senate candidate, Terri Lynn Land, is pursuing a kind of stealth strategy, in which she seems to become less and less visible as the campaign goes on. Her opponent, Representative Gary Peters, appeared on the date of a previously scheduled debate this week, sharing the stage with an empty chair before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 30 people. “This is not the ideal format,” he understated.

The empty chair is the traditional prop in these circumstances. However in Alabama, where Gov. Robert Bentley is resisting debates, Democrat Parker Griffith has been toting around an inflatable duck. I have fond memories of a New York City mayoral candidate waving a rubber chicken that was supposed to be the absent Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani’s defense was that he didn’t want to appear in debates that included distracting third-party candidates. This is a longstanding argument. Do you want to watch the Democrat and Republican go head-to-head? Or do you want to be inclusive? And, if so, how far are you prepared to go? Right now in North Carolina, the Senate hopefuls include a former town councilman who is best known for having submitted his resignation letter in Klingon.

“I’ve been in many debates that I think were a disservice to democracy,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said during this year’s gubernatorial primary. He was perhaps referring to his run for governor in 2010, when he wound up on stage with six other candidates, including a woman whose claim to fame was running a prostitution ring and the nominee of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

There are some problems with Cuomo’s analysis, only one of which is that he was using it as an excuse to avoid any debates whatsoever during the primary this year. While the thing with the madam and the rent guy was pretty weird, that was possibly the most memorable gubernatorial debate in state history.

And, of course, we appreciated that everybody had the decency to show up.


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